Assembly bills addressing suicide prevention reach the final stage

AB 89 under review by the Senate; AB 1261 vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown

Ten years ago, a Bay Area teenager died by suicide after being expelled from school for substance abuse. He had been doing well academically and participated in sports.

"All the things the general public doesn't associate with someone who takes his life," said former Palo Alto Mayor Victor Ojakian, who knew the youth.

The teenager wasn't asked anything about why he was caught on campus smoking marijuana; he was simply expelled. A day later, he died.

"I always remembered that situation and wondered what could be done that could be helpful as opposed to just sending them home," Ojakian said.

Assembly Bill 1261, introduced by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, would have required school districts to consider whether a mandatory expulsion or zero tolerance policy related to substance abuse could deter students from seeking help. Substance abuse can be a risk factor for suicidal behavior, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Gov. Jerry Brown, however, vetoed the bill on Monday, stating that while he agrees with the goal of AB 1261, he believes it should be handled on the local level.

Both Berman and Ojakian, whose son died by suicide, were disappointed by the governor's decision.

AB 1261 isn't "very prescriptive," Berman said. The former Palo Alto City Council member felt it was a "light ask," but he acknowledged that the governor has a certain philosophy on the relationship between state and local agencies.

Ojakian, who wrote letters of support for the bill and encouraged community members to do the same, said that both the Palo Alto Unified School District's Board of Education and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's San Francisco chapter also sent letters of support.

"I think it was a very useful piece of legislation because it wasn't based on (a) hypothetical; it was based on what would've helped in an actual situation," he said.

Berman said he and his office will continue to encourage school districts to re-evaluate the zero-tolerance policy and recognize the link between substance abuse and mental health issues.

"We're going to have more conversations with the administration and try to find out if we can get around these concerns and find a way, whether it's phrasing things differently or changing the proposal so it's something the governor would be comfortable with," he said.

Meanwhile, another bill that addresses suicide prevention is awaiting motion from the state Senate. Assembly Bill 89, authored by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Marin County, and co-authored by Berman, would require applicants for licensure as psychologists to complete at least six hours of training in suicide-risk assessment and intervention. It passed 72 to 1 in the Assembly with bipartisan support. Six other states already require psychologists and licensed health care professionals to complete minimum hours of training in suicide-risk assessment.

"Suicide kills twice as many people in California as homicide, but not all mental health care providers have the training they need in suicide-risk assessment and prevention," Levine said in a press release on April 20. "AB 89 will save lives by making sure that psychologists have the training they need to identify suicidal individuals."

The California Board of Psychology, which sponsored AB 89, conducted surveys and reviews of licensure requirements after the governor vetoed Assembly Bill 2198 in 2014; AB 2198 proposed similar requirements of training in suicide assessment and prevention — 15 hours for all mental health professionals.

Results showed that "the variance in training received in graduate and training programs does not adequately ensure that consumers would be consistently assisted by all of our licensees," Board President Stephen C. Phillips wrote in the Board's support message for AB 89.

According to Board Executive Officer Antonette Sorrick, between 3 to 7 percent of either schools or training programs were not covering suicide prevention and intervention in their curriculum at the time of the board’s survey.

"AB 89 will not only help promote public health through improving the state's suicide-prevention efforts, but also puts California in a leadership role with other states that protect consumers of psychological services through mandatory training in this critical area," he wrote.

Though the bill has faced some backlash from opponents who argue it should be left to licensees' discretion, Phillips said in a separate interview that "with such an important public health issue, we believe as a board that we need to mandate that training."

Ojakian and his wife have a history of suicide-prevention work — in institutes with youth, with Santa Clara County on strategic plans and on statewide committees. AB 89, however, provides something they haven't been able to address: suicide-prevention measures across age spans.

"It's not institution-specific; it's not geographic-specific; it's applicable to any Californian who comes into contact with a psychologist," he said. "All psychologists get training so it's working whether they see a young person or an adult or an older adult."

According to Ojakian, major law enforcement agencies such as the California State Sheriffs' Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Firefighters' Association as well as mental health organizations like the Steinberg Institute, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Trevor Project and Palo Alto youth collaborative Project Safety Net have come out in support of the bill.

He encourages community members to send their own letters of support.

Berman also asked Palo Altans to contact him if they have any ideas for policies or bills related to mental health.

"This is an important issue, we know, in Palo Alto," he said. "We're going to keep trying."


Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Additional resources can be found here.

Links below provide more resources where one can receive help:

Guest opinion: How to help those in crisis

Q&A about mental health: Local experts offer their advice, guidance


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1 person likes this
Posted by Greg
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 6, 2017 at 2:13 pm

Substance abuse and suicide may stem from the same underlying problems. Substance abuse may itself lead to suicide. But the public schools have limited resources. The schools cannot be expected to fix everything in every enrollee. I'd like to see the schools at every level instill some political knowledge and civic pride. Students should be tuning in - not out. How about a story on current alcohol and other drug abuse by minors in this area and in California?

10 people like this
Posted by 5150 victim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2017 at 2:58 pm

I've posted before on this topic, but I want to get the message across about one of the biggest problems with our mental healthcare system when it comes to suicide prevention.

Suicidal people are currently treated like criminals and punished. They are not nurtured and cared for, but basically placed in prison - it's not called a prison, but it's a horrible place where escape is not possible. This is what happens if a healthcare provider, teacher, etc. in Santa Clara County suspects a person is suicidal and calls the police to report them, which they are required to do by law. The suicidal person is placed in handcuffs and taken to Santa Clara Valley Emergency Psychiatric facility where they are placed on a 24 hour - or longer - hold. All possessions are taken away from the individual, including shoe laces, and they are then placed in a room with many other suicidal people: men and women, young and old, homeless, druggies, perverts, etc. - all together in one room. All doors leading to the outside are locked and the police are always on duty to make sure everyone behaves themselves and no one escapes, just like a prison. There's a person with a clipboard observing the inmates, making notes. Nurses are on hand but only to administer drugs to patients. A guard is posted at the restroom. The staff are not friendly - they don't seem to want to be there and they don't want to engage in conversation with anyone. All the inmates intermingle, asking each other what they did to end up there. Young, medicated people give away too much personal information to older people and those observing don't seem to care. Of course no cellphones, computers or anything that eases the boredom are allowed, so there's nothing to do but watch TV that is always set on CNN or another channel that no one wants to watch. Occasionally someone tries to escape and the police pin them to the ground. Sometimes one of the inmates does something inappropriate and CPS is called. It's a frightening environment to be in. When it's time for bed, only the medicated can sleep in the three beds available. The remaining inmates, 35 when I was there, must sleep sitting up in a chair with a blanket. It's kind of like being stranded in an airport for hours, waiting for your flight - not knowing when it will depart - - it's like that but times ten in awfulness. No one will tell you when you can expect to be released and the wait to get out and go home seems never ending. No one can leave until they're evaluated by a psychiatrist, and when the facility is short staffed, the wait is very long. It is apparent that the only way to leave is to lie to about your feelings, so during the exit interview when the psychiatrist asks if you are suicidal, you lie just to get out of there; if you tell the shrink that everything is hunky dory, you're good to go.

I've often heard that people who are suicidal show no signs of being depressed and their loved ones are really shocked when they take their lives. Now I know one of the reasons why. If they reveal their feelings they will be placed in prison and punished. They're afraid to tell anyone, including their psychiatrist or teacher that they are suicidal, because by law, the psychiatrist, teacher or healthcare provider needs to report them and have them placed on a 24 hour suicide watch at the lovely (sarcasm) Santa Clara Valley Emergency Psychiatric/prison facility. The system is beyond broken.

3 people like this
Posted by Matthew Etheridge
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 7, 2017 at 12:50 am

Suicide is an act that society has long been trained to condemn and we still have a long way to go as far as the discussion on mental health goes. But this is a one step forward in a right direction. Have you heard about the study, which claims that four in ten men have considered killing themselves? Terrifying... I'm glad the bill is about to pass - it will definitely raise awareness around the problem.


Matthew Etheridge

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Evergreen Park

on Aug 7, 2017 at 2:35 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

12 people like this
Posted by Au Courant
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 8, 2017 at 2:37 pm

There is currently a man from China who describes himself as a "former Tiger Parent", who lives here in Palo Alto.

His son was one of the teens in the last Gunn suicide epidemic.

He know spend most of his time going to communities of Chinese nationals all over the US, telling parents not to "push" their children, nor "threaten and punish them", nor " shame and disown them" for having less than a full load of AP courses, getting less than a 5.0 GPA, or for failing to gain entry to Stanford, MIT or Harvard.

He tells these " Tiger Parents" his own story and that of his son, and that none of the pressure he and his wife had applied has been " worth the fact that he will never come home, never go to any college, never marry, never give us grandchildren".

He urges other Chinese parents to learn from his mistakes and save their children.

If he saves one Chinese teen, reforms one Chinese parent, his own loss was not in vain.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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